A cool breeze blows through Gagosian’s West 24th Street gallery this summer as “Social Works,” a group show hosted by Antwon Sargent—curator, critic and author of “The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion” Writer – his first project as director in Gagosian.
There are 12 artists spanning generations and ceremonial subjects. And in the work here, much of it created during the last pandemic-ridden year, they survey the somewhat broader social landscape involved by Blacks as an identity. Part of the terrain is rooted in textbook history. The “Bitter Trade” in Titus Cupper’s painting of that title is European colonialism and slavery. A turbulently textured wall relief by Allana Clarke made of rubber and hair-connecting glue and titled “There was nothing left for us”, suggests a silhouette of continental Africa. Four large abstract collage paintings by architect and social organizer Rick Lowe, of Project Row House fame, take the destruction of the 1921 “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., as their subject and evoke aerial maps of wartime bombing .
The show also brings the definition of the black social sphere into the active present. Thester Gates, who was spearheading an effort to revive Chicago’s South Side, revived the spirit of local pop god DJ Frankie Knuckles (1955–2014) in an altar-like installation composed of 5,000 record albums, which was once known as This Chicago. House-music was owned by Pioneer. . In a series of large boxy sculptures, Lauren Halsey quotes commercial signs from south central Los Angeles to give a sense of the changing daily life in the neighborhood she grew up in. “Yes we are open and yes we are black owned,” reads one piece. “Sons of Watts Community Patrol” reads another. The greatest piece, “Black History Wall of Respect (II)” needs no text: the pictures of the protective spirits of the place, from Malcolm X to Nina Simone, speak for themselves.
There’s also a practical, street-level expansion of Halsey’s investment in its neighborhood. She has helped set up a food bank there, called Sumawerithang, which brings fresh, free organic produce to the South Los Angeles “food desert” community. And a powerful example of them has been in the work of influential art historian and gallerist Linda Goode Bryant, who in 2009 founded an urban farming initiative in New York City called project eats, which has a full scale demonstration model in Gagosian.
In the 1970s and ’80s, with his gallery Just Above Midtown, Bryant transformed the city’s cultural landscape by introducing contemporary black artists to a larger art audience. In this too young celebrities like Kafar are following his leadership. A few years ago, he co-founded nxthvn, a dynamic consulting workshop in New Haven, Conn., where he lives. Clarke, Jalika Azim, Kentura Davis, Christy Neptune and Alexandria Smith have featured five artists in Sargent’s exhibition.
In a nutshell, the show usefully scours current market-ready definitions of “black art” (there’s almost no portrait painting here) and explores “social practice” art inside and outside the traditional art world of galleries and museums. . The Gagosian is, of course, deeply traditional in that world and in every way deeply. In fact, the most amazing thing about “social work” is that it’s getting there at all. So it will be interesting to see whether black artists will continue to be occasional visitors or become full-time settlers on this particular patch of market grounds. And it will be interesting to see how much the gallery will allow a smart new director to expand the field.
Social Work: Curated by Antwon SargentGagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, Manhattan, (212)-741- 1111, through September 11 gagosian.com.